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Year after 'end' of Iraq combat, peril on the ground for Americans

Maya Alleruzzo / AP

U.S. Army Pfc. David Hedge from Bealeton, Va., front, and fellow soldiers from 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment are bathed in rotor wash moments after arriving by Blackhawk helicopter for an operation to disrupt weapons smuggling in Istaqlal, north of Baghdad, Iraq, on Aug. 8.

By Courtney Kube, NBC News producer

BAGHDAD, IRAQ – One year ago today, the last of the "combat troops" drove out of in Iraq and into Kuwait, marking the symbolic end of more than seven years of U.S. combat in Iraq.

Less than two weeks later, President Barack Obama sat in the Oval Office and declared that, "The American combat mission in Iraq has ended." But has it?


 

June was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since 2008. Fifteen U.S. service members died there that month.

A U.S. military spokesperson in Iraq said that there are an average of 14 attacks per day across the country, targeting Iraqi civilians, Iraqi military and police, and U.S. troops.

That's down from upward of 200 attacks per day back in 2007 during the height of combat operations there, but the spokesperson conceded that the number is still too high.

"It’s a lot of attacks," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said during a meeting with Pentagon reporters this week, adding that the numbers of attacks and casualties "are not satisfactory."

For some Americans, the war isn't over

Buchanan said that while al-Qaida in Iraq still has as many as 1,000 fighters operating there, the group is "a shadow of what it use to be." It "doesn’t represent the existential threat to the state" that it once did, and its finances are "seriously degraded," he said.

So who is behind the attacks in Iraq now?

Most can be linked to a Shiite extremist group called the Promised Day Brigades. The group, which boasts several thousand fighters, is the successor of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which disbanded several years ago.

Buchanan also warned of a significant increase in support for the insurgents from Iran and particularly from a special Iranian military unit called the Quds Force in recent weeks. The U.S. military recently displayed new, more lethal rockets that it said had been manufactured in Iran and then used to attack American troops.

The militants also still show a surprising ability to regenerate their leadership, Buchanan said. In the northern city of Mosul, the insurgent leadership has already been taken out five times this year, but each time a new leader has emerged quickly, often within a matter of days.

"It’s going to take a long time" to defeat these groups, Buchanan warned.

Just as violence has persisted in Iraq, U.S. military operations have continued there, as well. Although the Iraqi military is supposed to have the lead in security operations throughout the country, Buchanan revealed two unilateral airstrikes that U.S. forces conducted this summer.

U.S. Apache helicopters fired on several insurgents who were spotted firing rocket-propelled grenades at a U.S. base near the Basra airport in southern Iraq, he said. There was no Iraqi military involvement in the Apache strike.

In another incident in June, U.S. forces spotted several insurgents planting a roadside bomb to target an approaching U.S. convoy. U.S. helicopters fired on the men, preventing the convoy from striking the bomb. There was no Iraqi military involved in this incident, either.

The continued danger to U.S. military men and women deployed in Iraq was brought home to an NBC News team at the beginning of this month. Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, cameraman Jim Long and I were at Victory Base in Baghdad when insurgents began launching rockets at the complex. As the sirens blared and an announcer warned of "Incoming!" an enlisted soldier ran by and said, "Here we go again." He later explained that the enemy has been "peppering" Victory with rockets lately and showed off several places where shrapnel had pocked blast walls and shattered windows.

During his first visit to Baghdad as secretary of defense in July, Leon Panetta gave an exclusive interview to Miklaszewski, telling him that the U.S. will not sit idly by as troops are attacked. "We’re continuing to see attacks," Panetta said, adding that, "we have a responsibility to defend our soldiers, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do."

New Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the U.S. is "within reach" of defeating al-Qaida. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, who is traveling with Panetta, reports.

What does the future hold for the U.S. in Iraq?

On Aug. 2, the Iraqi government announced it wanted to begin negotiating for a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the current Dec. 31 deadline to have all U.S. troops out of the country.  U.S. defense officials believe that the U.S. presence after the end of this year will be primarily for training and partnering with the Iraqi security forces.

But, more than two weeks after the Iraqi announcement, there is still no formal request from the Iraqi government for U.S. troops to stay.

Buchanan characterized the talks as still very preliminary, saying that they have not "progressed to a point I would call negotiations." He also warned that the longer the U.S. goes without a specific request for troops to stay, "we lose some options."

One thing has not changed much since the mission changed from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn last year – the number of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq.

This time last year, the U.S. had about 50,000 troops in Iraq. Today, there are still roughly 46,000 serving there. Buchanan admitted that will have to change in the very near future – though how many troops may stay on for the next phase remains a mystery.

Maya Alleruzzo / AP

U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class David Hedge from Bealeton, Va., center, and fellow soldiers during an operation to disrupt weapons smuggling in Istaqlal, north of Baghdad, Iraq.